Opinion by Thornton May

The CIO is becoming the HVAC guy

A world where IT is perceived as essential but not strategic is an ugly place to be

hvac ventilation exhaust
Credit: Pictorial Evidence, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia

A group of CXOs and I were thinking about the future recently and started pondering this question: What will the role of the CIO be in 2030? To answer this question, we have to make some forecasts regarding what the social, political, economic and technological environment will look like. 

What people are saying about 2030

Do a search of the term “2030” and the results will span a spectrum of macro and micro issues (the x-axis) and attitudes (the y-axis), ranging from utopian to dystopian. They all will tend to reflect the current concerns and agendas of insulated and isolated elites. 

Spending a day or so online on the macro level, you might learn about the evolving state of global trade, the pace of the move toward global gender equality and the chance that Earth could be struck by an asteroid within the next 14 years. One concludes that, barring wide-scale behavior change, there will be no shortage of shortages: food, water, energy and housing. 

Spending a similar amount of time online on the micro level, you might learn how crowded London will become and the rising price of homes there, the losing battle to reduce male obesity, the evolution of global personal sanitary habits and the changing nature of the morning commute.  

Regarding occupational futures, you might learn about shortages of nurses in North America and firefighters in Australia.

Not immediately forthcoming is what the role of the CIO will be in 2030. This is not a question you will be able to answer with a Google search. 

CIO role changes when technology becomes ubiquitous

The CIO at one of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, addressing an audience of over 160 no-nonsense, “I have things to do today” CXOs recently, provocatively suggesting that we are living in the best of times technologically. 

He recalled that in the mid-1980s, ahead-of-the-curve CIOs told their organizations, “Trust me. There will come a time when everybody in the enterprise will have the technology kit they need, and it is going to be dirt cheap and really reliable. That is going to be nirvana. I am going to help you get to that place.” 

They were right. We are living in an age of cheap, reliable and readily accessible technology. The muggles — the non-IT professionals in the enterprise — don’t need us to buy technology. They don’t need us to deploy technology.

But they do need us to create a curated buffet of technology options. They do need us to sculpt (à la Cass Sunstein’s Nudge) a technology decision-making process that makes it easy to do the right thing. They do need us to euthanize with minimal disruption legacy systems. They do need us to integrate new tech with current tech. 

The problem is that they can start to feel autonomous in the technology sphere and not recognize that they need IT professionals to extract full value from an exponentially expanding technology choice set. 

The danger, as that higher-ed Cassandra opined, is that CIOs will not correct that misperception — will not materially intervene in the current flow of their career trajectory — and, come 2030 or so, will find themselves essential but not strategic. 

Essential but not strategic?

Are you wondering whether something that is essential can not be strategic? Well, if the CIO’s role is just to make sure that everything is running, what is the difference between the CIO and the guy in charge of the air conditioning? I mean no offense to the hard-working professionals who design, manage and operate air conditioning systems, but there is no such thing as great air conditioning. Either it works or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, the guy in charge of it is gone. In the overheated and globally warmed climate of 2030, you will absolutely need to have air conditioning. Similarly, in a totally chipped, omni-surveilled, algorithmically analyzed 2030, you’ve got to have IT. 

A world where IT is perceived as essential but not strategic is an ugly place to be. If IT is not up and running, you will be fired, but there is no upside to being great. IT just has to work. It has become air conditioning. 

Madge Meyer, the author of The Innovator's Path: How Individuals, Teams, and Organizations Can Make Innovation Business-as-Usual, made a similar point back in 2011: “There will not be an IT group managing technologies since everything will be available in the Cloud. Technologies will be utility like electricity. It will be there for people to use when they need it.” She advocated that CIOs become chief innovation officers, a title she held when she was CIO at State Street Bank. 

Meyer’s vision has come to pass. As one of the CXOs pondering the role of the CIO in 2030 noted, resources have become commoditized and workloads have become fungible. It is now possible to purchase compute capability on a "spot" or "spot block" basis. In 2030, IT will operate a “trading desk” for computational resources. 

I will discuss how we can cope with that in a future article.

Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at thorntonamay.com, and contact him at thornton@thorntonamay.com.

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